We approach the future walking backwards, our gaze forever fixated on the past. Predicting the future is not a passive exercise; we invent it every day with our actions.
I began the sketches for what would ultimately become Obama 2012 in March 2007, a month after Barack Obama declared his candidacy. I had spent much of the previous 18 months living abroad as an entrepreneur and statesman of sorts, and I was slightly out of touch with the pulse of life on the street in the United States. I learned about Sen. Barack Obama's Springfield, IL speech formally declaring his candidacy for president of the United States through one of the international cable news channels and thought how great it would be to have a fresh start after years of mediocrity in Washington, and a plummeting reputation around the world.
By September, after what seemed like raising a six-month-old child, my sketches had turned into -- Why the Democrats Will Win in 2008: The Road to an Obama White House. It was my answer to the burning question everyone had back in March: Can he really win? Actually, not everyone thought it was a question. For many people, including Mark Penn, director of the Clinton campaign, the answer was an easy "no way." This strategic blunder made it that much easier for the Clinton campaign to be defeated. Then there were Black pundits like Shelby Steele, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, who came out with a 2007 book entitled, A Bound Man, Why Obama Can't Win.
Being Black did seem to be an automatic disqualification, but then why did someone need to write an entire book arguing what should have been patently obvious? Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell came to my mind and I remembered that he could have run for president in 1992 as a war hero. But Colin Powell was Ronald Reagan's protege and got a special pass on the race question. Black conservatives like Justice Thomas, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were careful to disassociate themselves from liberal thinkers and activists like Jesse Jackson, who lost, as expected, the 1984 and 1988 Democratic primaries. Ultimately, Colin Powell, in spite of all his honors, declined to run for president. His wife Alma feared for his safety.
Common sense said that a candidate like Obama, for numerous insurmountable reasons, didn't stand a chance of winning the Democratic primary, let alone a general election in which 10% of the electorate is African American and Republicans controlled the White House for 20 of the preceding 28 years. But I decided that Obama's chances merited a closer examination. In it, I would bring to bear my gambling skills.
I went to New York to meet Obama the candidate, and in a Soho apartment he told a small group of us that his middle name was Hussein. I thought he was telling a joke. Barack Hussein Obama, a liberal Black senator with a name on loan from Al Qaeda... for U.S. president? Is he out of his mind?
Then I really wanted to know whether his campaign was worth getting my hopes up for and investing my time in. I applied techniques used in predicting financial markets and researched theories of voting behavior. I applied the theories, in my own way, to the upcoming primary and general elections. I learned as I went along. The result was an analytical and quantitative study concluding, with gaps filled in by some admittedly fuzzy logic, that not only could Obama win, but, in fact, he would win because the stars lined up in his favor. Call it God's Will. I reached my conclusion and told everyone who would listen that I had a strong case to make for victory, and that I could prove there was indeed hope. Hope is essential to any difficult endeavor. But hope as a campaign slogan is not good enough; hope needs firepower. No one becomes heavyweight champion of the world, an astronaut or the president by accident or dumb luck.
By the time my book making the case for an Obama victory was first printed in bulk, in October, 2007, Obama was 20 points behind Clinton in the polls and I was dismissed by just about everyone in the New York Democratic Party establishment and the media. Ambitious, elitist and snooty Democratic Party insiders like New York Electoral College voters Deb Slott and Terrence Yang did all they could to shut me up and lock me out. Big-time Obama fund-raising bundler and millionaire Virginia Davies ordered her 12th Street rooftop penthouse minimum-wage Latino flunkies to turn off the elevator when I attempted to go upstairs to an Obama fundraiser on April 9, 2008.
Yang and Davies turned down my $250 check from a Black Masonic lodge and barred me from the premises because it was their private property and Yang didn't like my "hostile attitude" or my "look," i.e. I wouldn't kiss his bourgeois butt or grin to reassure him I wasn't a dangerous half-Negro. The irony of it! For them, Obama was bought and paid for that night and only invited celebrities like actor Lucy Liu and others on Yang's exclusive clipboard could enter their coveted penthouse. Impostors like these are a big part of the problem in America, not the solution. Limousine Liberals jockey for position and the Democratic Party becomes indistinguishable from the Republican Party except at election time.
But even in Harlem I was on the defensive. Harlem was Hillary country. Boldface name Black celebrities like Maya Angelou, Magic Johnson and Tavis Smiley came out for Hillary. Then in January 2008, Bob Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television, made this statement:
"And to me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood -- and I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in the book -- when they have been involved. That kind of campaign behavior does not resonate with me, for a guy who says, 'I want to be a reasonable, likable, Sidney Poitier 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.' And I'm thinking -- I'm thinking to myself: this ain't a movie, Sidney. This is real life."
I was indignant. Here was a man who had made a fabulous fortune peddling and reinforcing the worst stereotypes about his own people as dangerous drug dealers, thieves, thugs and rapists; had provided a launch pad for a thousand materialistic, misogynistic hip-hop videos that glorify the murder of young black men for trivial slights real and imagined; directed his vast entertainment empire to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to maximize profits, and when confronted with protests from the Black community, retorted that "BET stands for Black Entertainment Television, not Black education television.
The production of these videos outside of BET notwithstanding, I thought about the millions of viewer-hours that Black children (many of them obese) wasted imbibing BET programming and its emphasis on anti-social and self-destructive behavior to gratify primeval instincts of lust and greed. Mr. Johnson made himself the heir to and then continued the tradition of 19th-century popular American culture and journalism that portrayed Africans and their descendants as prurient savages who would still be swinging from trees had they not been saved by European colonialism and slavery. In true late 20th-century American form, Johnson, an African-American, was given the equal opportunity to exploit this tradition in Horatio Alger fashion and become what was hitherto an oxymoron: a Black billionaire.
Tyve, portrayed brilliantly by Zero Mostel in the musical A fiddler on the Roof and typical of the "music videos" my mother exposed me to as a boy before companies like MTV and BET came on the scene a generation later, laments that "when you're rich, they think you really know."
It is clear that in spite of his great wealth, Bob Johnson does not have a clue. Maybe he was exposed to BET programming in his formative years.
Obama the Outlier
The election of Barack Obama is analogous to a "black swan"event in that it defied common sense, convention, precedent and therefore probability in the popular imagination, i.e. it was not supposed to happen. Now that it has, the charts are indelibly shifted in his direction. In my 2007 book I argued that macroeconomic forces and cyclical patterns would bring on a recession and electoral realignment, culminating in his election. In that sense, his election was not a surprise. Now Obama as a concept larger than the man himself is a new novel form of power and has a reflexive relationship with other sources of power in all their variety, including the power of the subconscious mind in large numbers of people. We would call this conditioned power. As we have seen, Black Entertainment Television wields conditioned power through its ability to manipulate images that penetrate the subconscious and go on to influence people's behavior without their knowledge and create the illusion of acting of one's own "free will." Conditioned power, like compensatory power (money), is neither good nor evil; it is a force to be harnessed.
The conservative cultural and political shift that dominated Washington and the American frame of debate since the 1980s is now in ruins because the election of Obama is much more significant than the mere election of another liberal to the White House. The convergence of his identity with the position he holds as the face of America to the world alters the essence of what it means to be an American, a real American, not just someone with United States citizenship resulting from accidents of history and geography. It is difficult to overestimate the repercussions this will have over time but some of the salutary effects on the culture are apparent.
I have seen more Black/White interracial couples in midtown Manhattan during the last week of April 2009 than I saw in all of New York during 2008. In what has long appeared to me to be the most race and caste conscious large city in America once you get past the diversity window dressing of Black receptionists, security guards and bouncers employed at all-white offices and night spots, Latino cheap labor and Asian immigrant mom-and-pop service industries, I now see Blacks and Whites actually socializing with each other in public places like Bryant Park during their free time. Some even hold hands. New York is starting to look like London ten years ago. Still, in 2009, the most fashionable Manhattan nightspots in Chelsea and the Meat-Packing District like Cipriani's and Pink Elephant have an unwritten "No Blacks Allowed" admittance policy, and its often the 300 lbs. Black bouncer at the door charged with enforcing this policy under the guise of face-control and dress codes. Black celebrities, of course, are supra-racial and get the red carpet unless applying for the prestigious Harmonie Club, which has never admitted a non-white, not even as a token. Bloomberg wisely resigned from this club and Obama refused to speak before it while running for office.
In American cinema 20 years ago, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, both set in New York and brimming with explosive racial tension, were box office hits. A generation before Spike Lee there was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Patch of Blue, To Kill a Mockingbird and Imitation of Life. Now, naturalized American supermodel Heidi Klum and her African husband Seal (Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel) are on the front cover of tabloids because they are expecting a baby and the movie The Dance Flick opened in theaters on May 22, 2009. Miscegenation has become fashionable. Nevertheless, in 2009 more Americans and Black men and women than ever are in prison. More than a few of them are innocent. America has 25% of the world's prisoners and millions of de-facto orphans, mostly Black boys. The complex American problem of passive collaboration between marginalized people and phony Wars on Drugs and Crime finds an outlet in the mentally disturbed culture of our time. They say they're just keeping it real, but what passes for music today is like a finger painting done by men who shit in the palm of their hand and call it high art because it makes money.
W.E.B. Dubois (the wise) observed budding materialism and a culture that pardons shiftlessness and celebrates crime as defiance of the "man" (an unjust, racist order enforced by the organs of state power, i.e. ex-Confederate soldiers and Klansmen in the police force) 110 years ago in Georgia. Now in 2009 a Black man -- Black not just by accident, i.e. melanin count and the width of his nose but by virtue of struggle, study and voluntary consciousness, sits at the pinnacle of American state power as he commands conditioned power of millions at home and abroad who would believe in and heed him. His re-election in 2012 is more likely than any other outcome.
His Presidency does not usher in the Post-Racial Era, as the gap between White and Black America remains enormous by any indicator. It does conclude the Civil-Rights Era, a long unfinished chapter of Reconstruction and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. The conclusion, i.e. triumph of the Civil-Rights Era does not magically prevent any abuse from occurring in the future; work must be continuously done to hold on to its gains. This is why we support Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.
Booker T. Washington exhorted us to cast down our buckets where we are. Now is the time to finally let go. Not of the collective memories and historical record, but of the mental chains. Just as 19th century internal combustion technology ( diesel and gasoline engines) must give way to better methods, culture steeped in passive acceptance of slavery and resistance to exploitation needs to re-asses what is true and what is a big lie. No one person can will this to happen. It will be a movement of broad masses of people as they make a million decisions large and small everyday of their lives.
Theory is far behind reality and must now play catch up.
This essay is the prologue to Obama 2012, a collection of essays to be published later this year. Daniel Bruno Sanz writes about financial and political affairs. His areas of expertise include currencies, stock markets, Latin America, Japan and Russia. In early 2007, he predicted that Obama would win the Democratic primary when polls showed him 20 points behind Senator Clinton. He also forecast Obama would win 52% of the popular vote and beat the Republican nominee in the general election.